Iowa senators block Human Services nominee

2009-04-15T10:30:00Z Iowa senators block Human Services nomineeRod Boshart The Quad-City Times
April 15, 2009 10:30 am  • 

DES MOINES — Senate Republicans united to block Eugene Gessow as Gov. Chet Culver’s choice to direct the Iowa Department of Human Services during a stormy, partisan confirmation debate Wednesday.

Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley, R-Chariton, defended the rejection in the name of government openness and forthrightness, while the Senate’s top Democrat dubbed it “gutless” and Culver called for a redo on the 31-19 outcome before the 2009 session ends.

Gessow fell two votes short of the 34 affirmative votes needed to meet the two-thirds majority requirement for confirmation after senators sparred for an hour during a debate that was heated, combative and required repeated meetings with Senate President Jack Kibbie, D-Emmetsburg, to restore calm and decorum to the Senate chambers.

All 18 GOP senators opposed the confirmation while all 32 majority Democrats voted for confirmation — but Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, switched his vote in a procedural move to keep Gessow’s nomination eligible for reconsideration yet this session.

McKinley said minority Republicans objected to Gessow because he was not forthright with legislators when discussing the handling of a recent situation where 21 individuals with mental retardation were found to be living in substandard conditions at an Atalissa bunkhouse.

McKinley declined to be specific during questioning by Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, on the Senate floor, but issued a statement after the vote saying, “Iowans expect government to be open and transparent, and they expect their elected and appointed officials to be forthcoming and honest.

“However, Mr. Gessow has failed to be forthright about the Atalissa bunkhouse situation during important legislative oversight committee hearings,” McKinley said in his statement. “As a result, Senate Republicans have concluded Mr. Gessow’s appointment to head the state’s second-largest agency, responsible for providing essential services to hundreds of thousands of Iowans, is not in the best interest of this state’s taxpayers.”

Hatch contended the opposition was without merit, political and ill-timed, given that Gessow is managing the state’s largest agency through tough economic times that may force layoffs and reorganization in delivering needed services to 800,000 vulnerable Iowans.

Hatch said it was minority Republicans who weren’t being forthcoming or open about why they were choosing to take on Gessow’s nomination. Gronstal went even further after the debate, calling Republicans’ action “gutless, petty and small.”

“We deserve an answer, Director Gessow deserves an answer, Iowans deserve an answer,” he said. “To be silent at this time is not worthy of this body.”

McKinley dismissed Hatch’s prodding as “theater” and contended “everybody is replaceable” in holding firm to the GOP caucus position.

Tempers flared when Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said that any senator who did not have the “guts” or “courage” to state their case publicly in debate did not belong in the Iowa Senate — which triggered GOP outcries and a timeout ordered by Kibbie.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, appealed to senators to consider the children, the needy and the impoverished citizens of Iowa at a time of economic turmoil before casting their votes. “We cannot betray them by creating a leadership vacuum” in a department that impacts so many vulnerable Iowans.

After the vote, Culver issued a statement requesting the Senate to put aside partisan differences, to reconsider the vote and to “do the right thing” by confirming Gessow.

“This provides a clear opportunity for Senate Republicans to take a second sober look at this matter, place the interests of Iowa above partisan politics and, in another vote, correct this unwise and unjust act by confirming Gene Gessow’s nomination,” the governor said.

“Hundreds of thousands of Iowans depend upon the Department of Human Services for their quality of life, and they need us to stand up for them,” he added. “It is clear. Gene Gessow is the right person to lead the Department of Human Services, and his record speaks for itself.”

Culver said Gessow would stay on until at least May 1 as DHS director, and he was weighing possible options to maintain Gessow’s role in the Culver-Judge administration.

The governor praised Gessow’s work as DHS head and previously as Iowa’s Medicaid director over the past six years, crediting him with aggressively securing millions of federal dollars and creating the IowaCares program to serve low-income Iowans who are unable to access government health care programs.

PREVIOUS STORY: DES MOINES — Senate Republicans united Wednesday to block the confirmation of Eugene Gessow as Gov. Chet Culver’s choice as director of the state Department of Human Services.

Gessow fell two votes short of the 34 affirmative votes needed to meet the two-thirds majority requirement for confirmation. All 18 GOP senators opposed the confirmation while all 32 majority Democrats voted for confirmation. After it became clear that Gessow’s confirmation would fail, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, changed his vote to no so he could procedurally file a motion to reconsider the confirmation at a later date.

Senate GOP Leader Paul McKinley of Chariton said Republicans objected to Gessow because he was not forthright with legislators when discussing the handling of the Atalissa bunkhouse situation and other unspecified issues.

McKinley said his 18-member caucus takes the confirmation process seriously and many have expressed “grave concerns” that Gessow had not been forthright in discussing a recent situation in which 21 individuals with mental retardation were found to be living in substandard conditions at an Atalissa bunkhouse.

“Director Gessow was not forthcoming. We need openness, we need transparency,” McKinley said in response to questioning from Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, who at one point raised concerns that Wednesday’s vote was “just a political issue.”

“This is getting out of hand,” said Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, as he and a cluster of senators met in the Senate well several times as the confirmation discussion got increasingly heated and combative.

Hatch contended it was minority Republicans who weren’t being forthcoming or open about why they were choosing to take down the director of state government’s largest agency serving more than 800,000 Iowans with a budget of $4.6 billion and 5,700 employees.

“We deserve an answer, Director Gessow deserves an answer, Iowans deserve an answer,” Hatch said. “To be silent at this time is not worthy of this body.”

McKinley dismissed Hatch’s prodding as “theater” and contended “everybody is replaceable” in standing pat on the GOP caucus position.

Tempers flared when Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said that any senator who did not have the “guts” or “courage” to state their case publicly in debate did not belong in the Iowa Senate, triggering another private meeting in the well and Senate President Jack Kibbie, D-Emmetsburg, admonishing senators to refrain from personal attacks.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, appealed to senators to consider the children, the needy and the impoverished citizens of Iowa at a time of economic turmoil before casting their votes. “We cannot betray them by creating a leadership vacuum” in a department that affects so many vulnerable Iowans.

Culver said Gessow would stay on until at least May 1 as DHS director, and he was weighing options to maintain Gessow’s role in the Culver-Judge administration.

The governor praised Gessow’s work as DHS head and previously as Iowa’s Medicaid director over the past six years, crediting him with aggressively securing millions of federal dollars and creating the IowaCare program to serve low-income Iowans who are unable to access government health care programs.

Copyright 2015 The Quad-City Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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